125 years of saving lives at sea – Sumner marks extraordinary milestone 

Sumner, 02 November 2023 - One of New Zealand’s oldest search and rescue institutions, Sumner Lifeboat/Coastguard Sumner, is celebrating a milestone that very few can boast – 125 years since its first dedicated lifeboat with crew kitted out in a purpose-built boat.

Built from and for the local community, volunteers across three centuries have continued a strong legacy of innovation and commitment which has saved the lives of thousands of people over the years. Sumner’s close-knit family remains one of Coastguard’s leading units both for on-water activity and how they engage and work with their community.

Across 2022/23 alone, Coastguard Sumner volunteers contributed more than 4,000 hours to the Unit – responding to 39 calls for help and bringing 46 people home safely. 

Coastguard Sumner President Blair Quane: “As the oldest marine-rescue organisation in New Zealand, our unit has seen incredible change over the last 125 years. Our volunteers today have dedicated themselves to continuing our proud history of innovation and commitment to bringing people home safely.”

“We thank everyone in the Sumner community who has supported, volunteered, and donated to our organisation over the years. Innovation is at the heart of Sumner so here’s to the next 125 years of transformation to continue saving lives at sea and keeping our volunteers safe.”

Coastguard New Zealand CEO Callum Gillespie: "From the entire Coastguard whānau, we congratulate everyone involved at Sumner for their contributions to our mission over the past 125 years." 

"As we all know too well, time never stands still, and nor does Sumner. Values like innovation, community, commitment, and loyalty have been passed down generations at Sumner and it is fantastic to work with a unit that values its people so highly. Sumner truly stands as a beacon at the top of New Zealand maritime search and rescue history,” he said.

Early beginnings at Sumner 

Volunteer rescues at Sumner date as far back as 1864 when William Henry Turner was appointed as the first pilot for Sumner Bar. 

During his tenure, Turner called upon a volunteer four-man crew for rescues using a pilot boat, successfully undertaking five rescues over the summer of 1864/65.

One of the group’s most notable figures, Joseph Day, took centre stage from 1867 to 1897. He led numerous daring rescues with scratch volunteer crews, utilising both a dinghy and a large boat. By the 1890s, the crew consisted mainly of Joseph Day, Charles Phillips, James Williamson, C. Dunn, and Joseph Hines. Their collective efforts led to the successful rescue of many lives. 

Joseph Day's heroic actions did not go unnoticed. In September 1875, he was honoured by the Royal Humane Society of England with an Honorary Testimonial for saving the life of a 14-year-old boy who had been tipped out of a capsized boat near Sumner in January 1875.

Sumner Lifeboat Institution is born 

In 1898, the launch of the first officially commissioned lifeboat, 'Rescue,' at Cave Rock represented Sumner’s first dedicated lifeboat. The 25-foot clinker-built rowing boat with Coxswain Joseph Day on the helm was funded by the Lyttelton Harbour Board. This marked the start of a legacy built upon innovation, determination, and unwavering commitment, with the Sumner Lifeboat Institution officially formed in the years following.

As the institution continued to evolve, new vessels were introduced. Notably, the 15-foot clinker-built 4-oared lifeboat 'Aid' was launched in February 1909. In 1930, the institution transitioned to motorised vessels, launching 'Rescue II', a 30-foot motorised lifeboat built by Whites of Cowes in England.

New technology 

The volunteer institution continued to upgrade their rescue vessels over the coming decades, integrating and embracing modern technology of the day. In 1958, Rescue II was fitted with a radio-telephone for the first time, allowing enhanced communication with other rescue agencies and those on shore. 

In the 1970s, the recently developed jet boat technology was identified as particularly suitable for inshore rescue vessels, which operate in shallow seas and surf conditions. It was also during this decade; Sumner became one of the founding members of Coastguard New Zealand. To this day, most incidents Sumner attends are in the surf or near the rocky shoreline where a jet boat is ideal.

Coastguard Sumner – a vibrant, modern community asset 

Sumner’s vessels continued to evolve, and their volunteers innovate. They operated purpose-built rigid hull inflatable jetboats, jet skis and offshore rescue lifeboats. In stark contrast to most Coastguard units, volunteers are also highly skilled jet ski operators, with the first asset added to the fleet in 2005 equipped with a rescue sled for surf retrievals. 

In 2010, Blue Arrow Rescue was officially launched - a 12.5-metre-long all-weather rescue vessel, equipped with twin jet units. This vessel was designed from scratch to meet the future needs of Coastguard Sumner and is equipped with state-of-the-art systems, including radar, sonar, and infrared camera rescue sensors. Capable of reaching the edge of Pegasus Bay and beyond, Blue Arrow Rescue provides great range and has been part of numerous rescues over the past 13 years alongside other agencies like Surf Life Saving.

In recognition of their exceptional service, Sumner received the Rescue of the Year Award at the 2022 Coastguard Awards of Excellence. The award was for the rescue of a hang glider pilot who crashed into the bottom of the cliffs at Whitewash Head. This rescue was notable not just for the successful rescue of the injured casualty from a very tricky location - he was first attended by volunteers and then evacuated by helicopter - but also for the safe extraction of crew by sea in rapidly deteriorating conditions. 

From everyone at Coastguard New Zealand, we congratulate Sumner on this unbelievable achievement and thank everyone who has been involved both on and off the water in this community over the years. Here’s to another 125 years! 


For more information, contact
Ben Parsons 
Coastguard New Zealand Senior Communications Advisor 
[email protected] 
+64 21 756 405

Thanks to our life-saving partners:
  • Auckland Council
  • Northland Regional Council
  • Waikato Regional Council
  • Hutchwilco
  • Marine Deals
  • Tower
  • Kordia
  • Hyundai
  • Line7
  • Century Batteries
  • Half Moon Bay
  • NZCT
  • Lotteries Grants Board
  • Lion Foundation
  • Pub Charity